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Lebanon: Votes Cast In First Stage Of Parliamentary Vote

Lebanese voters are going to the polls in Beirut today for the start of a four-phase parliamentary election -- the first since the withdrawal of Syrian forces from the country a month ago. Opinion surveys suggest candidates allied with Saad al-Hariri are set to win a landslide victory in Beirut because of a wave of sympathy for his assassinated father, former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Prague, 29 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Voters were trickling into polling stations in Beirut early today for parliamentary elections just a month after Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon under international pressure. It is the first election in three decades that is taking place without the presence of Syrian troops.

Correspondents say the early turnout appeared thin in the mainly Sunni Muslim capital. Nine of the 19 parliamentary seats from Beirut already have gone uncontested to nominees of Saad al-Hariri -- a 35-year-old businessman who was thrust into politics by the 14 February assassination of his father, the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Saad al-Hariri today predicted that his "Future" bloc would win all of the capital's 19 parliamentary seats, saying, "We will build this country on the basis of national unity and people will intensely vote for the memory of my father, slain former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri."
The vote marks the first time foreign observers are monitoring the polls. The European Union has sent a team of more than 100 monitors.

Today's vote is the first stage in a four-phase election taking place across Lebanon during the next month. More than 400,000 people are eligible to vote in Beirut. Other regions will vote for the128-seat parliament during the next three Sundays.

The elections follow major political upheavals in the aftermath of Hariri's assassination. Many Lebanese citizens blame Damascus for the bomb blast that killed the former prime minister. Syria denies any involvement in the killing.

But the political backlash against Syria within Lebanon, combined with heavy international pressure, forced Damascus to withdrawal its military forces from Lebanon some 15 years after it originally had promised to do so under the Al-Taif accords.

Nazik Al-Hariri, the widow of the former prime minister, also spoke to reporters after casting her ballot today, saying, "Lebanon shall remain a nation for everyone. A nation of benevolence. We shall remain united, worthy of freedom, worthy of Rafik al-Hariri and worthy of Lebanon."

Only a small number of pro-Syrian leftists and Muslim militants are competing against Hariri's Future bloc in Beirut. But the solidarity of the anti-Syrian alliance that blossomed after Hariri's death has eroded somewhat as the euphoria of anti-Syrian protests has given way to dismay at politicians who have been engaged in political horse-trading in the run-up to the vote.

Still, Hariri's alliance with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and some Christian foes of Syria remain intact. The Hariri-Jumblatt front also has made deals with the main pro-Syrian Shi'ite alliance. Hariri's Beirut ticket includes a Hizbollah candidate while a joint Amal-Hizbollah list in the south embraces Bahiya al-Hariri, the slain leader's sister.

And while the election results are broadly predictable in Beirut and the south, closer results are expected in the north and center of the country -- especially among Christian rivals.

Today's vote also marks the first time that foreign observers are monitoring the polls. The European Union has sent a team of more than 100 monitors.

Critics of Syria, which tightened its grip on Lebanon after the 1975-90 civil war, say its intelligence chiefs manipulated previous elections in favor of its political partners. Many Lebanese also are still unhappy with electoral laws in the country that were designed to favor Syria's allies during elections in 2000.